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Understanding Soeharto

Launch of David Jenkins, Young Soeharto: The Making of a Soldier, 1921-1945 (ISEAS, Singapore), Australian National University, 8 September 2021

David Jenkins tells us in his Acknowledgements that ‘it has sometimes seemed that it was taking me more time to write Soeharto’s life than it took him to live it’. If the quality of this first volume of the projected trilogy is any guide it is clear that not a moment of David’s many years of effort has been wasted. This is a triumph of the biographer’s art, a scholarly reference work for the ages, and a great credit to the author and his publishers, who – although the Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore has done him proud – I only wish had been Australian!

It is almost unbelievably comprehensive in its research, drawing on a huge array of direct personal contacts and sources as well as the archives. It is splendidly lucid in its writing, as one might expect of a journalist of David’s decades of experience. It is deeply informative in its detailed descriptions of the wider political and cultural contexts of these years in which Soeharto grew to maturity. And it is both balanced and intriguing in its judgments of Soeharto, a figure obviously of monumental importance in the history of Indonesia, but also of greatsignificance in our own.

One of the things that makes the book so readable is that while the biographical storyline takes us only to 1945, when Soeharto was still only a junior military officer in his mid-20s, there are regular flashes forward to the man, and the leader, that he became. Explanations for some of the qualities he was later display as President are plausibly identified in the detailed accounts of:

  • his family background, unsettled to the point of chaotic and manifestly deprived of motherly love, which may well have fed the sense of insecurity and resentment which seemed to characterise much of his later behaviour, and the apparently essentially transactional quality of his personal friendships.
  • his very incomplete education, which fed into his sense of being a perennial outsider;
  • his preoccupation with financial security, which seemed later to become indistinguishable from greed;
  • his early fascination with Javanese mysticism more than Islamic religious traditions, which may have contributed to the almost preternatural calm with which he usually conducted himself; and
  • his deep comfort, to remain evident throughout his life, with police and military organisation and heavy discipline, bred particularly during the Japanese occupation in which he thrived, a world in which, as Jenkins succinctly describes it (p.198) ‘discipline was rigid, brutality a fact of life, paternalism taken for granted and police influence all pervasive’.

We will no doubt get a sense from the next volume as to how Soeharto acquired the bigger picture perspectives – about wider regional and global security and economic dynamics – hardly evident at all in his early life, but which Paul Keating as our Prime Minister found so intriguing and attractive in his dealings with him as President. And which I as Foreign Minister certainly found enormously helpful in working on issues such as Asia Pacific security and economic dialogue architecture – APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and all the rest – and the Cambodian peace settlement.

It was in those larger policy contexts that my own direct encounters with Soeharto took place, involving maybe half a dozen significant meetings over the course of eight years. I have to say that, thanks very much to our present author, my relationship with Indonesia when I became Foreign Minister in September 1988 – and my prospects for any direct access at all to the President – did not exactly get off to a flying start. Australia-Indonesia relations were in one of their recurring troughs, this time as a result of the publication two years earlier of a typically well-researched – but all the more painful for that – front-page Sydney Morning Herald article by David focusing on the financial dealings of Soeharto and his family, and comparing them with the Marcoses in the Philippines.

That we managed to repair the relationship was largely as a result of the close personal bond I was able to forge with my ministerial counterpart Ali Alatas, who had himself been appointed to the portfolio only a few months earlier. We quickly agreed that what mattered much more than taking the temperature of our bilateral relationship was is getting on with the task of building it, and that it was crucially necessary to add ‘ballast’ to what had been an overly intense political relationship, by focusing on advancing mutual interests through increased and more balanced trade, cooperation in exploitation of the Timor Gap, exchanges of tourists, academics and students, and the education of Indonesians in Australia.

East Timor remained, as Alatas described it, the ‘pebble in the shoe’ of our relationship, and on occasion very sorely tested our friendship – not least when Alatas, who was personally genuinely troubled by the military’s heavy-handedness and always supported real autonomy (if not then outright independence) for the East Timorese, felt himself the meat in the sandwich between strong Australian pressure and a President equally strongly intent on resisting it.

But overall that period from 1988 to 1996 was an extraordinarily productive one diplomatically. And it was so not least because Soeharto – notwithstanding the long Indonesian tradition of non-alignment – saw with absolute clarity the utility in wider geopolitical terms of a strong bilateral relationship with us, and actively encouraged it. The capstone was the Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement of 1995, which was conceived and negotiated directly by Keating and President Soeharto and their personal advisers. This treaty – until it unhappily fell apart in the context of the 1999 East Timor crisis – was widely hailed at the time as a strategic and diplomatic coup, putting our relations with Jakarta now on a footing comparable with those with Washington and Tokyo. And it was only possible because of the intense personal warmth and mutual admiration that developed between Keating and Soeharto.

My own periodic conversations with Soeharto (when we did finally get out of the hole that David dug for us) proceeded pleasantly, quietly and politely enough, and I always found him alert, engaged and shrewd. But I have to say that I was never quite able to forget or forgive not only his central role in the invasion of East Timor in 1975, but also the terrible, genocidal army-led massacre of more than 500,000 communist party members and alleged supporters that followed the 1965 coup which led to his ascension.

Paul, ever the supreme realist, and deeply impressed by the role Soeharto had played as a stabilising force in the region, had no such reservations – or perhaps even particular memory. But maybe the best explanation for his admiration was offered to me by Gough Whitlam, invoking as well the shades of Jack Lang and Rex Connor. ‘You must remember, comrade’, I remember him once saying to me, ‘Paul has always preferred older men’.

The multiple dualities in Soeharto’s make-up make him an intriguing subject for a biographer, those combinations of:

  • far-sighted statesman and, let’s face it, thug;
  • bland, smiling, modesty and, let’s face it, absolute ruthlessness;
  • willingness to nurture, encourage and support real competence in his ministers - but also, let’s face it, to tolerate and personally benefit from high levels of outright corruption; and
  • willingness and capacity to successfully advance the national interest, especially in economic development - while at the same time, let’s face it, hindering the development of genuinely responsive national political institutions.

It’s hard to imagine, on the evidence of this first volume, than anyone could ever do a better job of capturing the complexity of the man and his times than David Jenkins.

I congratulate David again, and his publishers and everyone else who has cooperated and worked with him in making this book such a formidable contribution to the literature, deserving and demanding both a scholarly and governmental, and a wider public, readership. I am delighted to declare it duly launched in Australia.

The video of this event is at the ANU Indonesia Project 2021 Youtube channel